This page contains a list of the six best books on Buddhism. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on Buddhism” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works on Buddhism. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on Buddhism. Here are the best books on Buddhism in no particular order:
What the Buddha Taught – Walpola Rahula
Publisher’s description: This comprehensive, compact, lucid, and faithful account of the Buddha’s teachings persistently enjoys great popularity in colleges, universities, and theological schools both here and abroad. “An exposition of Buddhism conceived in a resolutely modern spirit.”—from the Foreword.
“For years,” says the Journal of the Buddhist Society, “the newcomer to Buddhism has lacked a simple and reliable introduction to the complexities of the subject. Dr. Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught fills the need as only could be done by one having a firm grasp of the vast material to be sifted. It is a model of what a book should be that is addressed first of all to ‘the educated and intelligent reader.’ Authoritative and clear, logical and sober, this study is as comprehensive as it is masterly.”
A classic introductory book to Buddhism, What the Buddha Taught, contains a selection of illustrative texts from the original Pali texts, including the Suttas and the Dhammapada (specially translated by the author), sixteen illustrations, and a bibliography, glossary, and index.
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation – Thich Nhat Hanh
Publisher’s description: In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh introduces us to the core teachings of Buddhism and shows us that the Buddha’s teachings are accessible and applicable to our daily lives. With poetry and clarity, Nhat Hanh imparts comforting wisdom about the nature of suffering and its role in creating compassion, love, and joy–all qualities of enlightenment. Covering such significant teachings as the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Three Doors of Liberation, the Three Dharma Seals, and the Seven Factors of Awakening, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching is a radiant beacon on Buddhist thought for the initiated and uninitiated alike.
Publisher’s description: From one of America’s greatest minds, a journey through psychology, philosophy, and lots of meditation to show how Buddhism holds the key to moral clarity and enduring happiness.
Robert Wright famously explained in The Moral Animal how evolution shaped the human brain. The mind is designed to often delude us, he argued, about ourselves and about the world. And it is designed to make happiness hard to sustain.
But if we know our minds are rigged for anxiety, depression, anger, and greed, what do we do? Wright locates the answer in Buddhism, which figured out thousands of years ago what scientists are only discovering now. Buddhism holds that human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly—and proposes that seeing the world more clearly, through meditation, will make us better, happier people.
The Foundations of Buddhism – Rupert Gethin
Publisher’s description: Buddhism is a vast and complex religious and philosophical tradition with a history that stretches over 2,500 years, and which is now followed by around 115 million people. In this introduction to the foundations of Buddhism, Rupert Gethin concentrates on the ideas and practices which constitute the common heritage of the different traditions of Buddhism (Thervada, Tibetan, and Eastern) that exist in the world today. From the narrative of the story of the Buddha, through discussions of aspects such as textual traditions, the framework of the Four Noble Truths, the interaction between the monastic and lay ways of life, the cosmology of karma and rebirth, and the path of the bodhisattva, this book provides a stimulating introduction to Buddhism as a religion and way of life.
Publisher’s description: This landmark collection is the definitive introduction to the Buddha’s teachings – in his own words. The American scholar-monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, whose voluminous translations have won widespread acclaim, here presents selected discourses of the Buddha from the Pali Canon, the earliest record of what the Buddha taught. Divided into ten thematic chapters, In the Buddha’s Words reveals the full scope of the Buddha’s discourses, from family life and marriage to renunciation and the path of insight. A concise, informative introduction precedes each chapter, guiding the reader toward a deeper understanding of the texts that follow.
In the Buddha’s Words allows even readers unacquainted with Buddhism to grasp the significance of the Buddha’s contributions to our world heritage. Taken as a whole, these texts bear eloquent testimony to the breadth and intelligence of the Buddha’s teachings, and point the way to an ancient yet ever-vital path. Students and seekers alike will find this systematic presentation indispensable.
Publisher’s description: Dhammapada means “the path of dharma,” the path of harmony and righteousness that anyone can follow to reach the highest good. The Dhammapada is a collection of verses, gathered probably from direct disciples who wanted to preserve what they had heard from the Buddha himself. Easwaran’s best-selling translation of this classic Buddhist text is based on the original Pali.
Easwaran’s comprehensive introduction to the Dhammapada gives an overview of the Buddha’s teachings that is penetrating, and clear – accessible for readers new to Buddhism, but also with fresh insights and practical applications for readers familiar with this text. Chapter introductions, notes and a Sanskrit glossary place individual verses into the context of the broader Buddhist canon.
Easwaran is a master storyteller, and the introduction includes many stories that make moving, memorable reading, bringing young Siddhartha and his heroic spiritual quest vividly to life. This faithful interpretation brings us closer to the compassionate heart of the Buddha.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Buddha
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Buddha